Seeing its fish stocks deplete, a coastal community in Kenya decided to take matters into its own hands, writes Rebecca Stonehill
It s 31st January 2003, and beneath the shade of a mango tree, a large group gathers in the Kenyan coastal village of Shariani. Predominantly fishermen, they have witnessed with a growing sense of unease the waters, once rich in marine life, slowly depleting. They sit and debate, wondering what can be done to address this problem amongst a community that depends so heavily upon fishing. And so, from these humble beginnings, a seed is planted: the villagers know that the only way forward is to take matters into their own hands.
Fifteen years later, this seed has flourished into the Kuruwitu Conservation & Welfare Association (KCWA), Kenya’s first locally managed marine area that is helping to restore the ocean’s natural abundance. Overfishing, population increase, global warming and unchecked fish and coral harvesting for the aquarium trade meant that, by 2003, the crystal waters along this stretch of coastline were virtually barren.
And yet, this year, KCWA won the UNDP’s prestigious Equator Prize, an annual search for an outstanding sustainable, ature-based community initiative. The prize, to be awarded in New York, attracted over 800 global entries and, given the challenges faced by KCWA, the achievement is remarkable. Not only did KCWA have to convince the Kenyan government to allow a community marine reserve to be established – no mean feat – but the local community also had to be won over.
Concern existed that the initiative would be taken over by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), any real benefit being channelled out of the area. But over time, it became evident that for Kuruwitu, community was paramount. Through membership fees and outside funding, a growing number of villagers bore the fruits of KCWA’s endeavours, ranging from
assistance with hospital fees to supporting small businesses, such as honey production and tailoring.
By 2005, community members from an 8 km-stretch of coastline had joined forces and a 30-hectare area was designated as a Marine Protected Area (MPA) to see what would happen if left entirely alone. This was an unprecedented, ground-breaking community project; nothing like this had ever happened before on the Kenyan coast.
“It wasn’t too late,” says Katana Ngale Hinzano, Kuruwitu’s vice chairman and a font of knowledge on the local area. Nature knows what to do. The breeding site is the heart of the project and if we leave areas alone, the marine eco-system balances out naturally.” The spectacular increase of the area’s marine biodiversity means Kuruwitu has become a thriving eco-tourism destination, creating jobs as rangers, guides and boat captains.
Since the MPA’s inception and penalties imposed upon those who breach the rules, the results speak for themselves. When fish biomass was measured in 2008, the increase since closing off the area saw a 500% increase in abundance, size and diversity of marine life. Evidence also exists of a knock-on effect outside the MPAs, with breeding taking place and a significant increase in fish stocks.
A snorkelling paradise has re-emerged for visitors, boasting a rich kaleidoscope of coral, sea grasses and shoals of tropical fish navigating secret passageways. Its success has resulted in it now being used as a model for other community-based marine initiatives. KWS rangers are even being brought in to share knowledge for mutual benefit. A non-profit umbrella organisation, Oceans Alive Trust, has also been established to support needs of coastal fishermen. Working alongside
government and Beach Management Units, 20 other similar locally managed-marine areas have been established along the Kenyan coast to sustain marine conservation, using Kuruwitu as a showcase.
Why not come and be part of Kenya’s first locally managed marine area? KCWA are seeking volunteers to help with research work such as fish counting, coral monitoring, turtle hatcheries and sea urchin density (over-fishing of sea urchin predators has led to increased numbers). Opportunities also exist to take part in various village-based projects. A PADI course can be combined with volunteering. For further information, visit kuruwitukenya.org